12. BIG TROUBLE (1986)
Big Trouble is a fun 80s comedy with an awesome cast. Cassavetes favorite, Peter Falk, stars alongside Alan Arkin and Beverly D’Angelo in this comedic take on Double Indemnity. In fact, there are so many similarities to Double Indemnity that Columbia had to give Universal an unused script called ‘Back to the Future’ in exchange for the rights to parody Double Indemnity. (I bet Columbia wishes they could get that one back) Big Trouble ended up being a big flop and it’s unlike any of John’s other films. Perhaps, because he wasn’t intended to even direct it – he picked up the gig after the writer Andrew Bergman was fired from the film. The studio didn’t give Cassavetes much range to do what he wanted and in turn, the film seems like a project that lacked any kind of artistic flare and instead could have been directed by literally anyone.
11. A CHILD IS WAITING (1963)
Cassavetes’ second of two studio pictures he would do in the early 60s hosts an impressive cast with Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster as a teacher and doctor, respectively, at a state mental hospital for children with special needs. While Cassavetes’ studio films aren’t at all bad, they just don’t nail the human emotion as directly as his personal, independent films. This one tugs at the heart strings, but more so because of its sympathetic subject matter as opposed to the revelation of any hidden emotions that Cassavetes’ has such a knack of exploring through cinema.
10. TOO LATE BLUES (1961)
Cassavetes, an already established actor, gained a bit of notoriety from his fiercely independent debut Shadows. This led him over to Paramount to make one of only a couple studio pictures he would ever make in his career. Cassavetes still brings his humanist touch to the film by leading us to identify with a phony, insecure jazz pianist, played by Bobby Darin. Too Late Blues is a glossier film than most of his grittier independent work, but it’s still a fine film with loads of heart. If only the studio didn’t act as a barrier between Cassavetes and his complete vision.
9. HUSBANDS (1970)
Husbands really deserves to be a much better picture than I personally thought it was. 3 of my favorite actors, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and John Cassavetes himself star as three husbands who mourn the death of their fourth friend by going on a weekend long bender followed by an impromptu trip to England. They deal with issues of infidelity, mortality, and masculinity, but they present it in such an improvisational way that it actually loses a lot of its power. I don’t know if Husbands was scripted or not, but compared to its scripted predecessor Faces, that felt naturally improvised, this feels unnaturally improvised and too candid for its own good. Now, this isn’t to say that this is a bad film, it’s just not as interesting or captivating as I would like it to be. I know this is a hot take to have Husbands listed this low, and for many this is considered Cassavetes’ finest film, but I’m more than open to re-watching this film annually so it does change my mind eventually!
8. LOVE STREAMS (1984)
The last ‘true’ Cassavetes film was his penultimate film, Love Streams. John Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands star as a brother and sister who both deal with loss in very different ways. Through and through, Love Streams is wholly ‘Cassavetes’ in both style and story, and he even goes further to bring more dream-like moments to this film than he has with any others. It’s an epic collection of all things Cassavetes. Love, loss, aging, and fidelity are just a few of the many themes that run through this film!
7. GLORIA (1980)
Gloria is one of the more mainstream plotlines that Cassavetes toyed with in his career, but is usually one of his most overlooked films. Gena Rowlands stars as a gun-wielding neighbor who takes care of her neighbor’s son after the whole family was shot dead by a group of mobsters. Gloria and the young boy, Phil, are now on the run left to fend for themselves against the mobsters coming after Phil. While the first half of this film is superior to the second half, the relationship between Gloria and this infectious little boy is one for the ages. Two butting heads that are more alike than they realize, this film is a genuinely entertaining look at how people, regardless of their circumstances or background, can still relate and find love in one another.
6. OPENING NIGHT (1977)
Closing out the 1970s for Cassavetes is Opening Night, a meditative look on the inevitable process of aging and its psychological effects on the modern human. Gena Rowlands stars as Myrtle, an aging actress who witnesses a fan get killed by an oncoming car after chasing her limo down. While preparing for opening night of her new play, Myrtle faces the inner conflict of dealing with subject matter of a play in which she has no desire to deal with quite yet; aging. Gena Rowlands is incapable of giving anything below a perfect performance and her role as Myrtle is just another example of that. Cassavetes perfectly exemplifies the struggle of melding reality with on-stage tragedy and how the life of an actress (or anyone involved in productions) take such a toll on the human psyche.
5. SHADOWS (1959)
Fed up with the quality of pictures at the time, actor John Cassavetes sought out to make his own films that would focus on the real moments that make up the human experience. His debut film is a heartfelt look at interracial relationships in 1950s New York. His cinema verite style of shooting is in its fullest effect here and in fact, the whole film was a working improvisation. Its legacy has helped inspire and influence young independent filmmakers everywhere. Looking back now, 60 years later, Shadows remains a relevant film both for its subject matter and for its influence on modern cinema.
4. FACES (1968)
Faces is perhaps one of the quintessential Cassavetes films. Shot on gritty black and white film in a documentary style, Cassavetes takes us into the life of a couple whose relationship slowly deteriorates and falls apart. John Marley gives a career defining performance as Dickie, an older man who abruptly divorces his wife Maria. He and his wife then each find themselves in the arms of younger lovers who try to fill the void that’s only grown bigger due to personal regret and insecurities. Cassavetes’ presentation of this failing couple makes it feel like we’re right there in the room with them, watching like a child watches their parents go through a messy divorce. Regardless of how much time goes by, this film remains relatable and pressing for anyone who’s fallen in or out of love.
3. MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (1971)
Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands star as the titular Minnie and Moskowitz, an unlikely couple that form a tight bond despite their many personal differences. Cassavetes captures all the wild and frustrating moments that come with courtship and approaching commitment in such a natural way, but doesn’t allow the improvisational feel to take center stage and distract the audience like he did with Husbands. The result, is a much tighter and funnier, love story that anyone who’s ever been in love before can wholeheartedly relate to. Minnie and Moskowitz is truly an underappreciated gem in Cassavetes filmography.
2. A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974)
A true masterpiece, Cassavetes’ study on the contemporary woman is not only one of his most well-respected films, but also one of the most intensely touching. Gena Rowlands bravely takes on the role of Mabel, a woman on the downward spiral towards a nervous breakdown. Her psychological issues paralleling the emotional and psychological torment of being a lonely mother are unmatched by any other performance. Cassavetes work was done completely outside any studio and the full reign he has over his project shows just what a masterpiece he can create when left to his own devices.
1. THE KILLNG OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976)
Cassavetes’ 1976 masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is his stylish take on the noir genre. An in depth look into the life of a lonely man spending his days trying to keep up appearances, Chinese Bookie is the perfect jumping off point into Cassavetes’ work. Ben Gazzara shines as Cosmo Vittelli, the owner of a club on Sunset who finds himself in debt with some pretty powerful local mobsters... The only way he can reduce his debt? Kill a Chinese Bookie. - The Film has been re-edited and there are actually two versions available for viewing, with the shorter 1978 cut being the more accessible. However, we beg you to go watch the original 1976 cut, the one Cassavetes intended to be viewed, as you go out and decide which version to watch!